Former EMPEROR front-man IHSAHN’s last album, 2009’s superb "After", is a hot contender for my favourite album of recent times and in no way would be neglected should that domain be extended to cover the entire time continuum. "Eremita", therefore, is perhaps an album I’ve anticipated over all others; though in the lead up to its release, it was quite hard to predict what IHSAHN might have in store. None of the man’s albums, with or without EMPEROR, have tended to sound much the same. What information was available - strangely designed cover art featuring awkward broken lettering atop an upside down picture of existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; and a spectacular list of guest appearances – served only to baffle further. As it turns out, the album cover is as good a reflection of “Eremita”’s sound as any. After a week or so of relentless listening, the best assessment I can give of “Eremita” is that it’s overly ambitious and disjointed – though somehow manages to be nothing short of brilliant.
While “After“ beautifully wrapped every element of its sound around one another, flawlessly interweaving and integrating each instrument and idea into a stunning soundscape, both glaringly bleak yet wholly accessible and absolutely crushing at the same time; Each section of “Eremita” is kept separate, given room to breathe and stand on its own. “Eremita” nearly completely abandons the low-range, seven-string, guitar sound that characterised “After“, opting instead to stick closely within the instrument’s higher register, only occasionally dipping into the lower tones when a big, ominous open note is needed. However, the other novum explored – the saxophone playing of (the Norwegian) SHINING’s Jorgen Munkaby – has been carried over, though this time even more pronounced due to the stripped back attitude of “Eremita”. There is too, a noticeably greater separation and presence of traditional, savage, Black Metal sections, albeit inevitably paired with, soaring, clean choruses.
While the minimalist attitude of “Eremita” may be its defining feature it also serves as the album’s greatest weakness. Each section is outstanding on its own, yet many of the transitions seem forced and on the whole is unable to conjure up anything as devastating as “On The Shores”, as engaging as “Frozen Lakes On Mars” or as hauntingly serene as “Austere” – often feeling like a succession of separate sections tacked together one after the other, rather than a completed vision. Many times “Eremita” attempts to be far too progressive for its own good, and it is at its best when it is being most direct – the best specimens being the opening track and those towards the album’s close. The times when IHSAHN comes closest to recapturing the magic of “After“ he does so in softer, more upbeat passages, often reminiscent of the more subdued work of DEVIN TOWNSEND. In fact, Deconstruction is a comparison I find myself making often to “Eremita“, for I too found that album overreaching, and less than the sum of its parts.
Mr. Heavy Devy himself, along with JEFF LOOMIS, LEPROUS’s Einar Solberg and STAROFASH’s Heidi Tveitan (aka. Mrs IHSAHN, who previously worked with her husband on the PECCATUM project), (and of course Munkaby) make a well-placed and valuable contributions to the album that stand out in the way they seem an integral part of the composition itself rather than a superficial addition. Despite this, I do wish there was a bit more of the in your face riffery that arose from IHSAHN’s contribution to Loomis’s record, which was a lot closer to the aesthetic of “After“ as well as being the clear standout of “Plains Of Oblivion“.
My main problem with “Eremita” is that it’s not “After“ part deux – an unfair standard to hold over any album’s head, especially one as rich and perplexing as this. By any other standard, “Eremita” is an astounding accomplishment, an it’s far more admirable that IHSAHN has managed to deliver, once again, something challengingly different; even if it doesn’t quite live up to potential or (unfair) expectation. As individual compositions, each track (or at least each section of each track) is utterly spectacular, yet there remains something about the album as a whole that’s not quite(/yet) speaking to me. I would not be surprised in the least if in six-month’s time or so I was stating, unequivocally that this album is an absolutely flawless masterpiece; an utter triumph of progressive music. The current ruling however, is that “Eremita” falls just short of its ambition.
(Online July 8, 2012)